Online scammers have begun impersonating President Donald Trump and the White House in phishing emails designed to lure recipients to websites for downloading malware on their systems.
The emails are the latest from attackers trying to take advantage of global concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-phishing service provider INKY recently spotted the scam emails and described the campaign in a report this week.
One of the emails is supposedly from someone in the White House named Valentina Robinson and is titled "The White House Instruction for coronavirus." The contents of the email are brief and urge recipients to click on an embedded link to a document purportedly containing new guidelines for Americans related to the pandemic.
The second email, titled "President guidance for coronavirus," is similarly brief and contains a link to a document supposedly containing information on new "groundbreaking steps" from the White House for slowing the pandemic.
The text in the emails suggests the writer is not a native English speaker. One of them contains grammatical and spelling errors — "carantine" for quarantine and "pamdemic" for pandemic — that would be very unlikely in an actual official email from the White House.
But those who click on the embedded link in either of the two emails end up getting directed to a Web page that is a replica of the actual White House landing page.
According to INKY, the reason the Web page — now removed — was so authentic-looking was because it was an HTML and CSS replica of the exact coronavirus content on the official White House information site on the pandemic. Instead of going through the effort of developing a fake site, the attackers simply copied the code from the original page. But users who attempted to download the document on the site ended up installing malware instead.
Such scams are very effective right now because coronavirus is relatable to everyone, says Dave Baggett, CEO and co-founder of INKY. "Phishers are capitalizing on our fear and need for information," Baggett says. "For example, we saw a phishing email with malware that said the sender could not travel because of the lockdown," he says. INKY has also observed many phishing emails claiming to have new COVID-19 guidelines or news about local cases.
Numerous vendors have reported a massive surge in COVID-19-related phishing emails in recent weeks from attackers seeking to distribute malware or steal credentials and other data from Internet users.
High Success Rate
Though many of the emails — like the newest ones purporting to be from the White House — can be relatively easily spotted for what they are, many are falling for them all the same. In a report last week, Menlo Security described Internet users as falling for COVID-19-related scam emails in much larger numbers compared to regular phishing emails.
Baggett says INKY traced the origin of the Trump impersonation emails to a Russian IP address. "Also, a Russian address is listed on the WHOIS lookup of the hijacked domain that sent both phishing emails and hosted the White House spoofed site," he says.
Researchers from INKY have also spotted another email campaign, this one impersonating Vice President Mike Pence. Unlike the Trump emails, the one purportedly from the VP is not COVID-19-related. Instead, it is filled with grammatical errors and highly implausible communication with vague threats related to "Human Trafficking, Drug Dealing and Money Laundering," apparently on the part of the recipient. The Pence email was sent from a Gmail account and has a US IP address, Baggett says.
"For users, the best defense is robust skepticism," said Jonathan Knudsen, senior security strategist at Synopsys, in an emailed comment.
Users need to resist the urge to click on links in emails unless they are certain of the identity of the sender and the content of the message. Verify information independently if at all possible, he noted. For example, with the Trump impersonation emails, users could perform their own Internet search to discover that the White House was not emailing guidelines to individuals, Knudsen said.
Internet users also should be careful with emails containing spelling and grammatical errors because that can be an indication it is malicious, said Ashlee Benge, threat researcher at ZeroFOX, in an emailed comment. "Another dead giveaway of a scam email is an attachment that requires recipients to enable macros. This is rarely required for benign attachments," she said.
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